Sunday, January 06, 2013

Class of 78: "Excitable Boy," Warren Zevon

The beat up cover of my beat up copy of "Excitable Boy."
I'd been trying to think of a new blog theme to explore in 2013, and thanks to Thomas, one of my old high school chums who is a Facebook friend of mine, I've got one.  His idea was to review some of the albums that were released in 1978, since that's the year we graduated from high school (Del Campo High School, Fair Oaks, CA, Go Cougars!).  That works for me - it was a great year for music, and it will also provide an opportunity to gauge how my tastes have changed over the years.  For the first six months, I'll also include some late '77 albums, since they were also a part of that "senior year experience."

We'll kick things off with "Excitable Boy," Warren Zevon's second album, which was released in February '78.  It was the first album by Zevon that I bought, but little did I know that he would become one of my very favorite artists.  Back in those days I bought a lot of albums that got good reviews in Rolling Stone, which is something you could still do, because those were the days when critics like Dave Marsh, Paul Nelson, Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs were still a major force in the records review section.  Nelson wrote the review of "Excitable Boy," and he left no doubt where he stood, opening up with the bold statement that it was the best American rock album since "Born to Run," "The Pretender," and "Zuma."  Some of Nelson's other quotes:

"...[after the first album] there was some confusion whether he was just another sensitive (albeit unusually tough) singer songwriter or a Magnum-cum-laude rock & roller who ate gunpowder for breakfast..."
"...An intuitive artist, he's often both smart and crazy enough to shoot first at the most explosive subjects, then figure out the ramifications of whatever the hell he's bloodied later ("Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner," "Excitable Boy," "Werewolves of London," "Lawyers, Guns and Money"). This is a dangerous way to work—it isn't nice, and not everybody gets it—but you can claim some spectacular trophies when you're sufficiently reckless to risk safari on the dark side of the moon, where the gleam of the lion may look like the leer of the lamb..."
"...Almost without exception, Zevon's rock & roll songs command and demand your attention through the sheer strength of their creator's personality; they're not necessarily profound (though they can be), but they hit with such primary impact you don't have to think twice about them..."

Looking back at the album today, it's a solid A-/B+, but only because four of the songs - "Excitable Boy," "Werewolves of London," "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" and "Lawyers, Guns and Money" - are of A+ quality, enduring classics that would likely show up on any Zevon "best of" that you could possibly conceive of.  That Nelson singles out those four songs in his review is just further evidence of his astute critical ear.  The rest of the album isn't bad by any stretch of the imagination, but in comparison to those four songs, is fairly pedestrian.

Zevon would struggle with the hobgoblin of consistency for much of his career, and one of the great tragedies of his untimely death in 2003 is that with his late-career resurgence, he seemed to have finally solved it, delivering what were likely his three most consistent albums (with the possible exception of the debut) in the four years leading up to his death.

But for a young kid looking for the next best thing, "Excitable Boy" was a great place to start.

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